Oxbridge has many ways of discriminating

'At my interview, I was aware that nobody from my family had ever been in a building like this'

The British summer is marked by a string of media totems that appear as predictably and as maddeningly as midges at a picnic. Big Brother; too much sunshine; not enough sunshine; A-level results; government drift; skin cancer warnings - and, of course, able state school student rejected from elite Oxbridge college.

And, just as predictably, a string of pompous Oxbridge alumni pop up to explain that the application process can't possibly be biased. There simply aren't enough places for everyone, they explain in a slow, condescending drawl, so some people from every social class will inevitably be turned down. No problem with bias; rich and poor are assessed equally.

Let's acknowledge the one legitimate point in this snotty Oxbridge-applications-are-perfect-right-now argument: it is simply a fact that not everybody with five A grades at A-level can be admitted to Oxbridge. The number of people achieving top grades far exceeds places at the two leading universities. Even if the applications process was perfect, there would still be a few people like Laura Spence and this year's star rejectee, Candice Clarke.

But to extrapolate from that a belief that there's nothing wrong with the system is evidence of precisely the deficient logic and poor cognitive skills that should have debarred these public school apologists from Oxbridge in the first place. I went to King's College, Cambridge, which has the highest proportion of students from state schools and economically disadvantaged backgrounds in Oxbridge, and had a fantastic time. But at the university I met an awful lot of posh people who, frankly, weren't very bright or very interested in their subject - and certainly were not a patch on several of my state-educated friends who applied and were rejected.

Of course, only a small minority of admissions tutors are openly prejudiced. I did once hear a notoriously sexist, lecherous Classics don drunkenly slur at a dinner that "women aren't very good at my subject", and another explain that "state schools just don't produce people of calibre". There is a straightforward way for Oxbridge to deal with these rogue interviewers. The universities should compile internal league tables for each interviewer which would log how many women, ethnic minorities and state school students each interviewer assesses, and how many he (or more rarely she) admits. Any huge discrepancy will soon become clear, and he (or she) can be blocked from conducting any further interviews.

Long overdue though this reform is, it would only be the start of tackling bias within the admissions system. Most of the University's admissions tutors consider themselves to be leftish people who really, really want to admit state school students. Their problem, they explain in sincere, pleading tones, is that they simply can't find enough good students from normal backgrounds. They aren't lying: there is indeed a problem with many of Britain's state schools. But even given this, all but the most clued-up Oxbridge interviewers - usually without knowing it - are underestimating the potential of state school students and overrating those from private schools. That is because of a flaw in the process.

Privileged children over-perform in interviews. That needs to be drummed into the head of every single interviewer before every single interview. Privileged kids are far more relaxed and confident in huge, posh colleges. At my interview, I was constantly aware that nobody from my family had ever been in a building like this, never mind dreamed of actually living there as a student.

Private schools, along with the top-end state schools, dedicate much energy to preparing their students for their interviews. For example, Sevenoaks School actually videos its students in mock interviews and analyses their body language. The school begins preparing its students for the process six months in advance.

The extent of that trickery can be seen in the fact state school students who do get in consistently out-perform private school students in their university exams: proof that they have to be more able just to draw even with the over-prepared rich kids.

Again, the problem could be dealt with fairly easily, if only Oxbridge had the will to battle against the conjuring tricks of the private sector. Interviewers can be given standardised training in which all of it is explained to them in great detail. These academics (who often know nothing of normal schools) can be talked through the difference in preparation and confidence; they can be equipped with skills to help interviewees overcome shyness or nerves. Most people would assume that already happens but, amazingly, half of all interviewers have received no training whatsoever. That's right: nothing.

If Oxbridge wants to avoid these annual rows, they need to start taking their applications process seriously. At the moment it is a largely unmonitored, haphazard affair run with all the slick professionalism of an amateur dramatics production. Sometimes the right people get through. All too often, they do not. I don't know if Candice Clarke was a better candidate than the people who Trinity College did select this year. What I do know is that she did not get anything approaching an equal opportunity.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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